Housing construction sagged in January for the second straight month, pushing home building in this country to the lowest level since the end of the last recession five years ago, according to figures released yesterday by the Commerce Department.

The decline brought construction to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.38 million units, the department said. That rate was 23.7 percent below the pace at the same time last year.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve reported that the nation's industrial production rose slightly last month. It was the third straight month of upward movement, but January's increase -- 0.2 percent -- was only half that of the previous two months.

Several economists said that the slowing rate of increase in output is in keeping with expectations of an overall slowing of the economy at least for the first half of the year. However, few said they expect the slowdown to turn into a recession.

Also yesterday, a construction industry study predicted a 4 percent decline in total construction contracting this year to $246.2 billion. The report, by Dodge-Sweet's Construction Outlook, indicated that while 1988 will not be as good as 1987, there are no serious threats to the construction business as long as no recession materializes.

The report foresees sharp drops in office and other commercial building, but only a "gentle decline" in residential construction.

The January housing drop, though a modest 2 percent from the previous month, was disturbing to industry economists because it failed to reverse the sharp 15.5 percent monthly decline in December.

"The numbers were a bit upsetting to us," said David Seiders, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders. "We had hoped that {the December figures} might be a statistical aberration, which can operate at this time of year" when the actual numbers of starts are small and changes are sometimes magnified by the seasonal adjustment process.

He added that construction of single-family houses, though down 3 percent, is "still doing pretty well." It is the multifamily sector, which "fell off a cliff in early December," that is "pretty scary."

He said multifamily construction is "plagued by the twin problems of high vacancy rates and the new tax law," which sharply restricts the tax benefits to owners of rental housing.

But he also said that while the overall construction rate was the lowest since December 1982, he does not foresee a return to the depressed levels of the early 1980s.

Others agreed.

"We think February and March will show a pickup in starts," said Warren Lasko, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. "We think the economy is extremely strong -- driven by the export sector -- stronger than people think.

In fact, rather than recession, "the real risk is for some inflationary pressure as the year goes on and some higher interest rates in the second half of the year," he said.

The Commerce Department report put single-family housing construction starts at an annualized rate of 1.01 million units, and multifamily starts at 366,000 units. The rate at which building permits were issued declined 8 percent compared to December's pace.

Several experts attributed the slip in single-family home construction to lingering uncertainty triggered by the October stock market crash.

"My feeling is that what you are seeing is cautious consumers, people who are uncertain about what is going on in the economy. They don't know whether we are headed into a recession or not," said Mark Obrinsky, an economist with the U.S. League of Savings Institutions.

The outlook for recovery in the multifamily market is much grimmer, most economists agreed.

The market is overbuilt and the demographic patterns do not indicate that the excess will be soaked up quickly.

"Net new household formations of renter-type households are not very strong," said Lasko.

Said Seiders: "The size of the vacancy situation out there means {that fundamental improvement} is a long way down the pike."